In Katie Couric’s insightful book “The Best Advice I Ever Got,” speed skater and eight-time Olympic medalist Apolo Ohno shares this;
“The 2002 and 2006 Olympic Games both had many instances which I was the strongest, the fastest the most fit and also the skater with the best strategy, but something happened and I didn’t come in first. Either I slipped or someone bumped me. Something seemingly out of my control happened and I didn’t win the race. I complained to myself, ‘man that kinda sucked’ because I felt like I was the best person but I didn’t win.
“But in the end it wasn’t really about the win or the loss. In 2002 I weighed about 165 pounds and I leg pressed approximately 1400 lbs. In 2006 I weighed about 157 pounds and leg pressed about 1500 pounds. My strength to weight ratio was a lot higher (in 2006). Four years later in 2010 I vowed to weigh less than 150 lbs. I wanted to race at 147 pounds so I had to totally change my mentality about what was possible from a physical perspective. To put that in perspective, I hadn’t weighed less than 150 since I was 14 years old. And here I was going to be almost 28. I ended up racing at 141 pounds and leg pressing almost 2,000 pounds so that to me was a testament to strength of my mind and will.”
The “unreasonable Blue Man Group”
I think Matt Goldman, cofounder of The Blue Man Group, says the same thing as Apolo Ohno, only he says it differently. In 1987, as Goldman was finishing college at Clark University in Worcester Massachusetts, he and two friends came up with the concept of the Blue Man Group. For some observers and critics this was a “strange” way to put on a show — and one that would clearly not last. Think about it, the show featured grown men in a blue suits who don’t talk to the audience but attempt to relate in other ways. Goldman and his partners received all sorts of feedback too. Some people told them that the show would never work, some said it was too funny to be a hit, some said it was not funny enough...and the list went on and on.
But Goldman and the Blue Men didn’t listen. Instead they honed their act, and people noticed. Now, some two and a half decades later, the Blue Man Group is one of the most popular and noted acts anywhere. Goldman says, “We heard all of the reasons it was not going to work, but guess what, it did work. I wanted to be crazy and I advise you to be crazy, to be weird… to be unreasonable. That’s my favorite one. People are always saying ‘oh come on, be reasonable’ and I want to shout no I don’t want to be reasonable. I want to be completely unreasonable. I want to change the world…”
The unreasonable path forward
“All truth passes through three stages,” wrote Arthur Schopenhauer. “First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” The role of the leader is to challenge their respective organizations to grow and meet goals… sometimes seemingly ridiculous goals. One great tool to such growth and innovation is to be unreasonable. Like any tool, it needs to be used wisely. Below are some tips, or a path forward, on harnessing the power of unreasonableness.
Define the unreasonable playing field
Safety has some notions, truths or principles that are largely accepted as fact. Some of these “truths” are: it takes ten years to really change a safety culture… why can’t we do it in 365 days? Zero incidents is not achievable… why can’t zero be both achievable and sustainable? Training doesn’t change behavior… why shouldn’t one training class change behavior?
Being unreasonable is simply taking a notion that is largely accepted as fact, and turning it upside down (setting the course to ‘self-evident’). A leader’s job is to capture or write down as many of these notions as possible then decide which one or ones should be challenged.
As a leader, you first must believe that what you are saying is true. For example, if you set the goal to change your safety culture in 365 days, ignoring common counsel that it takes much longer, you must in your core believe it. By the way, if you believe you can change your safety culture in 365 days… you are generally correct!
Get counsel from a council
When you choose the unreasonable path, you will have critics. So before taking this first step establish a small team. This advisory group can make your ideas better, give you key insights on your goal and provide counsel against critics.
One step at a time
I like the old management saying, “When you’re the hammer, everything looks like a nail.” We have all known, and maybe even worked for, the “boss” who solved every problem the same way… and maybe the solution was always the hammer. But using only one tool in the tool box is ineffective. Leading with unreasonableness is also a tool. Consider one unreasonable goal at a time. Once that goal is achieved, then move on to another.
Be mindful of harmful unattended consequences
Rob Norton, former economics editor for Fortune magazine defines unintended consequences as “the actions of people will always have effects that are unanticipated or unintended.” Setting an unreasonable goal will also have unintended consequences. Some will be positive, like innovation and creatively. Some will be negative. In the area of safety, explore whether there are harmful unintended consequences. For example, if you set the goal of zero incidents, injuries may go unreported in order to make the end of the month report look good.
Plan the plan
At the end of the day, your unreasonable goal is a corporate or business line strategy. Just like those endeavors, it needs to be planned, coordinated, communicated, measured and aggressively pushed. So, plan your unreasonable plan.
General Eric Shinseki said, “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.” A few years ago researchers put a Pike fish, which is a fish that aggressively eats other smaller fish, in an aquarium with other smaller fish. The only “catch” was that researchers inserted a piece of glass between the smaller fish and the Pike fish. Immediately the Pike fish dashed toward the smaller fish, only to be repelled by the glass. Again and again the Pike fish smashed his nose into the glass trying to reach his dinner. Eventually, the Pike fish gave up, sinking slowly to the bottom of the aquarium. Then researchers removed the glass barrier. Smaller fish began to swim throughout the entire space, even at times brushing the Pike fish. A few days later, the Pike fish
Died of starvation
Organizations that hold on to “Pike Fish” beliefs are in trouble. We need leaders who can be unreasonable, pushing their companies and the field of safety into new results. Doesn’t that sound reasonable?